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remittance

What does it mean to be on the brink of collapse? What does that collapse look like? How is it different from that verge, that moving toward collapse? How do you know when you have arrived at the terminus: collapse?

Both words are motion words. The moving towards and the destination, they run together in an arc that angles down, turning vertical. The collapse is the legs giving out; the brink is the wobble. But, where is the floor?

August 2018, the last time you were there, the windows in your old neighbourhood were still shattered, evidence of rocks thrown during a surge of violent demonstration in the street over a sudden, monstrously-planned spike in fuel prices. Your friends were tired, worried, morose. They didn’t want to leave, they said, but so much daily precariousness was exhausting, and it was slowly breaking them. The ones who couldn’t leave, no papers and no paper, they were swimming on as best they could in the volatile currents because that is what you do when there is no land in sight and sinking is not an option you’ll give yourself. You keep swimming, keep the aches of your muscles quiet and speak aloud in gratitude that you can still feel the sun on your face and thank you God it is nice to have air to breathe.

The last time you saw R was over a year ago, August 2018, and it had been over a year since the time before that. You asked after his family (his wife died) and after his best friend (his wife died, too). The little boy you used to go with him to pick up from his special needs school was now taller than both of you, he said, pulling a hand out of his jeans pocket to hover a flattened palm just above his head. His mustache had gone grey and his voice seemed thicker. You passed him a couple hundred dollars to help with school fees, with rent, with whatever he needed. Your family had always done this: childhood memories of hiding cash in envelopes, cash that was set aside bill by thin bill week after month, and then sent off with some traveling relative or acquaintance to deliver to your peoples Back Home to help with doctors, with plumbing, with whatever they needed. This was not Back Home, but it had been home, graciously, at one time. You had been grateful when you landed back, a visitor, and he answered your call, that he still had the same beatup Nokia with the same phone number, but cursed yourself for not trying to call him months before, before his wife died, before she got so sick, before he had to pull his son out of school, because maybe you could have sent him some money, maybe they could have done something different, maybe things would be different.

After you left in August 2018, so much changed. The protests nonstop. The massacre. The murder.

You delete twitter, but even still your instagram and your whatsapp fill with photos, videos, screenshots of these massive strikes and marches. You message with friends during their lock downs. Three days, seven days, ten days without being able to step outside to work, to school, to market. Nearly out of water, nearly out of cooking oil, the stores shut down and emptied, the market women’s bellies twisted with anxiety over not being able to sell, the growers’ bellies twisted with anxiety over not being able to sell, businesses burned, roads blocked with barricades, rocks flying, too much of the air blackened with tire smoke and live ammunition.

Three thousand miles away on the other side of the island, your friend has surgery to remove bullet fragments from his face. A week later, or, I don’t know, two weeks maybe, you get a message that another friend has been shot and you’re caught off guard by how quickly all of the breath leaves your body. You slump, deflated, but it turns out to be a rumour. Just a rumour. Just a rumour.

Three thousand miles away in the desert, you can’t stop buying groceries. Your fridge and freezer and cupboards have never been so full. You can’t afford this shit, can’t afford yet another bag of rice, or the frozen cauliflower, or the smoked fish, or all this dried mango, or these multiple bottles of wine. You look through your kitchen, your first kitchen that is yours and not a sublet and not a housesit but yours by name with your first lease in over ten years, you look through your kitchen and assess how many days you could survive without going outside. How many meals is this? You measure and divide with your eyes. Is there enough fresh water? For how many days? And for bathing and dishes? I should fill more containers.

And power? Do I have enough batteries? What if I lose electricity? When your phone drops below 70% you reach immediately for a charger. You have many muscles, and one of the strongest is the one that remembers blackouts, remembers lockdowns, remembers that anything and everything can simply run out: water, energy, safety, goodwill, time.

Three thousand miles away, you try calling R and are grateful to find that he still has the same beatup phone number, but a woman answers. R isn’t there right now. Try him again later. So, you try. And you try. Over two weeks, or, I don’t know, three weeks by now? you try and you try, try because there is a Western Union to pick up, and sometimes the phone is off and sometimes the call doesn’t go through and one time the woman answers again, and her voice takes on a familiar honey when she calls you chérie, but 30 seconds in the audio starts to loop in a strange glitch you don’t understand, you cannot explain, and the ghostliness impeding your conversation starts to feel unbearable and mocking. You hang up.

You stopped writing in this space in 2015 because you were on the brink of collapse. You suspected this at the time, of course: that you were on the downward side of an arc, in the act of collapsing, but had no concept that there might be an end point, a finality, a static position that looked like collapse, the act of collapse at completion. You know it now. Back up off the floor, and many miles away, you know it now.

still

Émotion: la douleur de voir partir ainsi pour toujours quelqu’un qu’on a aimé éperdument, ne serait-ce que l’espace de 12 secondes et 3/10.
 [Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer]

A year and a half of nonstop bouncing between geographies has left some marks. Six weeks lost in New York’s wounds, two weeks of sighing over Toronto’s halting flakiness, eight weeks floating though the light and open longing of Lisbon, seven weeks of tender patience and uneasy alertness in Port-au-Prince, plus handfuls of lovely or bewildering stops elsewhere thrown in between. Lather/ rinse/ repeat, for the nineteen months since I left my last home (temporary, still) in the Caribbean.

You can get good at packing and unpacking. That’s not hard. You can rise above the physical exhaustion of constant motion to let those motions become normal. Everywhere, deflecting the same questions on loop — Where do you live now? How long are you in town? — automatic, ritual, white noise. The hardest adjustments are internal. The spaces between people are not the same everywhere, our connections linked by different inputs/ outputs, and you are the international travel human adaptor. When you don’t have a single default or home, there is no normal to disappear back into after a particularly rattling trip. The trip doesn’t end. Everything feels weird all of the time — most of all, you.

One week you’ll greet everyone you meet with a kiss on the cheek, smile warmly, accept the dried fruit or steaming coffee offered, answer thoughtful queries from near-strangers on the health of family members, on the health of your heart. The next, you’ll be in a place where people you’ve met twenty times will pass without a nod. You’ll remember, slowly, that this snub is normal here, back in the place of fickle moods and ritual ghosting of friends and lovers. Here, spaces between people can stretch so far, the waters between them can run so cold. Adapt your touch accordingly.

(Once, freshly arrived from that place and not yet warmed to the new vibe, I breezed past an ex and his friends at a bar without a glance. I did it without thinking, cool walls still up. He confronted me later, face imploringly close — Why didn’t you say hi? — and I felt shame. I couldn’t be this way here, with him, and didn’t want to be this way anywhere, with anyone.)

“We’re going to the beach.” K pings me on WhatsApp mid-morning on a Sunday. The roads were clear, a blessed, temporary opportunity for escape amid weeks of blockades. “Call J to pick you up. He’s leaving his house.” Fifteen minutes later, afternoon plans pushed off, bikini on, towel rolled, ready for a day with the sea. Late afternoon on a Tuesday, a source calls to say she’s stuck in traffic, or there’s been a breakdown, or someone was shot, and could we meet across town in an hour or two instead? Time, space, mortality, everything fluid and unfolding, shifting according to the tides of the moment. That place, full to bursting but always flexible. Then a connecting flight brings you, like a space ship, to this other place where time is rigid. It’s FB invites and advance guest lists, emails that begin apologetic for the late notice, but are you free a week from Friday? R.S.V.P. Interested in attending? Maybe. V busy. LMK. Time flows through spaces differently, and vice versa. Adapt your clock accordingly.

Passport stamp from a teeming city of openness and eager ease for exchange to a smaller city of territoriality and fragile selves. Both, my cities. From here, where you listen tense and watch wary for danger before you turn the corner, to there, where other women walk carefree and alone at night with headphones on ten. Another plane to another place, where male gazes are predatory and pointed, and then off again, to where males are too nervous to give their feelings away with anything intimate as a gaze. The spaces between bodies, inviting or dangerous or confusing. Adapt your heart accordingly.

Adapt, adapt, adapt.

There’s a way you come to know yourself in motion: limber, unchained, unsupported by the usual pillars, a guest and unentitled, at mercy of the winds, carrier of changing skins and privileges, torn-out pieces of self buried lovingly throughout. It feels nothing like the exiles I threw myself into during my twenties. With exile, you’re always confronted by what and where you are not, existing in contrast.

I’ve been reading Dany Laferrière (L’Immortel!) and Mia Couto together this past week, sinking into their respective exiles in 1980s Montréal racism and lust or wartime Mozambique bush imaginary from my still-temporary bed in Toronto:

The cycles of light and of the day were a serious matter in a world where the idea of a calendar had been lost. Every morning, our old man would inspect our eyes, peering closely into our pupils. He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise. This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s star emerge. By the light preserved in our eyes, Silvestre Vitalício knew when we were lying and when we had allowed ourselves too much time between the sheets.
— That pupil’s full of night.
At the end of the day, we had other obligations that were equally inviolate. When we came to say good night, Silvestre would ask:
— Have you hugged the earth, son?
— Yes, Father.
— Both arms open on the earth?
— A hug like the one Father taught us to give.
— Well, go to bed then.
 [O Afinador de Silêncios]

I admitted (finally, again) to myself that I’d like to try to sit still somewhere for a little while (again, finally), at least longer than it takes to finish a TSA regulation mini shampoo. A default home base, a combination launch/landing pad filled with books and artwork liberated from their boxes, my notes and files all in one place, a mailing address, a single normal to relax into between overlapping worlds. Sitting still will help me think, I told myself. I’ve been wanting so badly to write, to read, to just be, without the consuming distraction of booking flights, organizing sublets, shipping, visas, exchange rates, negotiating which shoes to bring, recalling which belongings I have stored where, keeping track of my SIM cards, or swapping out slang and pop culture currencies so damn often — operational code switching ramped to an international scale. (How I managed a transition from news to longform through all of this is baffling.) More than anything else, I’m tired of mourning the distances that matter. I’ve missed some important goodbyes, and it’s hard to forgive myself for those. Friends doubt that I can sit still anymore, and say so to my face. No no, I insist, it will be a relief to give myself freedom from movement.

Beginning to plan for stillness, just considering gig offers and longer-term sublets and imagining alternate lives in a couple of cities, has thrown me into the worst creative block I’ve experienced in years. My active bouncing fighting mind, panicked, held itself hostage through most of December. Come on, I coaxed, we have deadlines to get through. It, too, will have to adapt.

 

source.of.undying.love

I must have met Masimba, appropriately, at Love Movement. I say must have because, though I don’t quite remember ever meeting him (in my mind, he’s just always been there, an integral part of the city’s scape and air and life and sound, a role occupied by but a few special ones in Toronto), the man put up some photographic evidence:

image

He snapped this in the basement of Alto Basso on College Street, late in the summer of 2003. I have only a vague recollection of this moment: Love Movement’s resident DJs Fase and Nana hamming behind the decks, me posted up with a Heineken in hand, smiling at them over my shoulder, not realizing I was included in the shot. When Masimba posted it to social media some years ago, I admit to feeling some combination of touched and horrified. The photo is not flattering, y’all, but it was from an important time. I was 21 and had just landed home for the summer, back from a semester abroad in Madrid where my Cuban rapper/DJ neighbours in Lavapiés and I would spend afternoons talking music and race, and weekends dancing til dawn. One of many worlds to navigate. Back in this other world of Toronto, I spent a short summer sneaking out of my (strict, immigrant) parents’ house to hit rap shows, open mics, and weeklies all over the city, often rolling solo because I didn’t yet know many people who were also into the music I loved. I didn’t yet know myself, either. I’d only recently started to DJ (that didn’t last long), started to co-host a hip hop campus radio show (neither did this), and started to freelance for music magazines (my first-ever published review, unpaid of course, was for an Oddities 12-inch I purchased myself). One of Masimba’s friends wrote last week that, pre-Drake, the Toronto rap scene was like a family. The distant sweetness of nostalgia makes me inclined to agree. I was the chubby, frizzy-haired Portuguese writer girl at the rap show, screwfaced, shy, and happy to be there. Nobody made me feel like I didn’t belong. The basement of Alto Basso filled every Monday night with unfamiliar faces that, over time, became friends, nods of recognition became hugs, and some friends eventually became family.

To look through Masimba’s FB albums is to journey through recent Toronto hip hop history. Jokes and candid moments from places that don’t exist anymore or are called by other names: Bamboo, IV Lounge, Movement Culture parties hosted by Sandra and Noah. He captured Fatski’s million-and-one variations on the b-boy stance, TT’s finger-in-di-air holler, Nehal cheesin, and El looking like the coolest cat in the room from absolutely every angle. Sa’ara B’s electric smile. Big Tweeze in his classic lean. DJ Serious on the decks. I love all of these photos.

These were the days of street teams pressing flyers in your palm for the next show as you walked out of the last one, and Georgie Porgy pushing CDs on the corner, all: Do you like real hip hop? The days of shows at Revival and B-Side and The Comfort Zone and The Big Bop and The Hooch and NASA, Planet Mars (before my time still), Peachfuzz, In Divine Style, Never Forgive Action, Cell Division mixtapes. Of making pause tapes to the Mastermind Street Jam on Energy and Real Frequency on CKLN. Of spotting people in Equinox199 ‘Balance’ and Too Black Guys t-shirts. In the winter, a Big It Up toque on every head’s head.

Then there was the Sagittarius Coolout. I think I looked forward to Masimba’s birthday more than my own, to those sweaty dance tangles and happy-to-see-you! reunion vibes that cut through winter’s alienating chill. I look back so fondly on those nights, even as we’ve all changed, moved, grown older, and grown apart. I’ve missed the Coolout the last few years, rolling back into town for my holiday visit a week too late, but I was counting on returning to Toronto early this December. I hoping to catch up on hugs and cut up a dance floor with my people again. Hoping. Was.

It’s been two weeks since Masimba left us to join the ancestors, since the flurry of long-distance calls and messages, since heartful tributes from friends and strangers flooded my timelines. This lovely man who called me young lady or sis, a brother to so many, he himself went by DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., and his presence was love. Revisiting photos and memories, reconnecting with dear ones I’d lost touch with, all of us mutual and willing victims of time and geography, has filled me with gratitude. This aspect of his legacy lives on. Of course, then there’s the music.

I posted a tribute back in 2008 to DJ S.O.S. and his birthday fête, including a link to one of his sets. I’ll happily re-share it here: The Sagittarius Cool Out 2007, Parts One & Two. The download will be live for the next week, so play it, laugh loudly at the ad libs, throw a finger in the air, dance. If you come around late, hit me up and I’ll gladly post it again.

This isn’t a eulogy — there have been too many this past year. Instead, this is a hug. Along with music, hugs are one of the sweetest gifts and most healing blessings he bestowed, and so I’m offering up the biggest, warmest, most open, joyous one I can muster.

Hugs for the past and future journeys, for yours and his and mine, for wherever they may take each of us, whoever may join us, whatever may come. Hugs whenever we may cross. Hugs for magic. Hugs for peace and love. Hugs honouring where you’re from, for the people who made you, for forgiveness, hugs for knowing yourself. Hugs to hold up the ones who need them. Hugs to celebrate dreams coming to life. Hugs to try harder, be better. Hugs, just because.

springtime in port-au-prince

Late February twilight in Delmas 5, Port-au-Prince. This tree is in full bloom now. By Susana Ferreira

A man called into Radio Caraïbes FM this morning, agitated and groveling for sympathy. Digicel, the Jamaica-based Irish-owned telecoms company that rules mobile phone life in Haiti, nearly destroyed his relationship. “I was supposed to meet madanm mwen on Saturday,” he said. He sent her a sweet little text message: “I’m waiting for you, chèrie.” She received his note, with much confused chagrin and much rage, five days later while he was at work. Now she wanted to leave him, he wailed. “Is this the state of communication in our country?”

I listened to his consumer dissatisfaction and heartache spill all over the radio while stuck in traffic — a terrible snarl near the forever dicey old cemetery, where Route Delmas, Route Freres and Petionville touch. At the tap tap station, a parked chauffeur dry shaved his head with a cheap blue razor, torso bowed out the side toward his mirror. Driver’s windows rolled down as familiar faces passed each other in opposite directions, pounds and broad grins in the slow crawl. “Brother, I haven’t heard from you! Call me!” A boy clipped through traffic in flip flops, clap clopping as he ran past us, quick on his feet but his expression heavy. A half-hearted “Uh! Uhhh!” up ahead, the plaints of someone he had just robbed, not bothering to give chase. I shrugged. Little thieves need to eat, too.

Everywhere there are handmade kites for sale, my favourite green-skinned breadfruit piled up gorgeously on the side of the road, women swaying under the impossible weight of merchandise piled in giant tubs on their heads. You can’t throw a grenadia in this town right now without hitting a political meeting. Deputy and senator and presidential hopefuls are rallying support, drawing lines and loyalties, promising pay outs months ahead of this year’s elections. The woo is strong, and it is served up in every corner restaurant accompanied by steaming mounds of rice.

My phone lights up constantly. Did you sleep well? Have you had your coffee? Be careful if you go to this part of town today. Did you hear about this accident with a water truck? I wanted to be sure you’re okay. How is your family? How is your grandmother? How is your heart? When will I see you again? And: Are you staying for good this time? I say no, but no one wants to hear it.

The evening rains came back this week. The downpour begins around 9 pm or 10 pm, hard, and carries on heavily until long after I’m asleep. Cool clouds linger past dawn, and the city that slumbered in stickiness wakes to chill and mud. By mid-morning, the sun finally eases out from behind the grey. The mud warms. Mosquitos twitch. Cellphone signals bounce out into the open skies, carrying schemes, gossip, and poetry to the tired, the ambitious, and the lovestruck.

a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

478776_284503574966763_134493706634418_634211_135992285_o
James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.